Listening to Britten – Festival Te Deum, Op.32


Painting (c) Brian Hogwood

Festival Te Deum, Op.32 treble solo, chorus (SATB) and organ (8-9 November 1944, Britten aged 31)

Dedication Written for the Centenary Festival of St Mark’s Swindon
Text Book of Common Prayer: Morning Prayer
Language English
Duration 6′

Audio

A clip of the recording made by the Choir Of St. John’s College, Cambridge, with organist Brian Runnett, conducted by George Guest. With thanks to Decca.

Background and Critical Reception

Britten’s second setting of the Te Deum was composed for the centenary of the Anglo-Catholic St. Mark’s Church in Swindon.

In his Britten Choral Guide, Paul Spicer explains how this setting is very different to Britten’s earlier example in the form. He highlights the first section ‘which, while carefully notated in a variety of time signatures so that it feels as if it has the freedom of Gregorian chant, is accompanied by static organ chords in a regular 3/4 metre’.

The importance of the organ part is also stressed, for it often operates in rhythmic independence of the choir, though it is complementing their melodies at all times. This is perhaps an indication of Britten’s confidence in writing for the instrument, seen recently in Rejoice in the Lamb.

Thoughts

There is a beautiful inner serenity to the Festival Te Deum, and it runs throughout the work. The title implies that it might be brash and full of fanfares, but it is actually more a study in contemplation, save for a rousing moment of praise in the middle, where the text is ‘Thou art the King of Glory, O Christ’.

Britten’s choice of E major as home key gives the overall sound an open and airy feel, as does the beautiful treble solo that accompanies the return of the opening organ chords. The piece ends deep in thought, but is content with that.

It is as if while writing this all of Britten’s strife and sweat was being channelled into Peter Grimes – which itself uses a section of the mass at its heart – leaving the Festival Te Deum high and dry, achieving what comes all too rarely to Britten’s music – a pure and lasting peace.

Recordings used

Choir Of St. John’s College / George Guest, Brian Runnett (organ) (Decca)
Choir of New College Oxford / Edward Higginbottom, Steven Grahl (organ) (Novum)
Choir of King’s College Cambridge / Sir Philip Ledger, James Lancelot (organ) (EMI)
The Sixteen / Harry Christophers, Margaret Phillips (organ) (Coro)
Finzi Singers / Paul Spicer, Andrew Lumsden (organ) (Chandos)
orchestral version – The Choir of Clare College, The Dmitri Ensemble / Graham Ross (Harmonia Mundi)

The Choir of King’s College Cambridge capture the inner peace of this work, even more so than George Guest’s version with the Choir of St. John’s College on Decca. The more ‘churchy’ interpretations tend to be more successful – Edward Higginbottom’s is also very fine – because of the work’s setting and its intended dedicatees. The Sixteen and the Finzi Singers tend to use more vibrato, but also offer polished performances.

Spotify

The following playlist groups together the versions made by George Guest, Philip Ledger, Edward Higginbottom, Harry Christophers and Paul Spicer.

Also written in 1944: Kodály – Missa Brevis

Next up: A Shepherd’s Carol

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